The scary skies were not complying with my plans for patio dining. And the bar and lounge areas were all peopled-up - a good sign for the pricey restaurant, but another bad omen for me.
Only when the host told me (in a near-packed-house exception to the rule) that I could order off the special cost-cutting menu that evening while seated in the elegant dining room did I know my luck was finally changing. Thus was I soon enjoying a sophisticated, French-inflected dinner for little more than a sloshy night spent over pitchers and wings.
Here then was yet more evidence that the Refectory's three-course, $24 Bistro meals are among the best deals in Columbus. In fact, cooked with impeccable technique and plated with un-shy side dishes and graceful garnishes, (like summery, herb-garden-green infused oils and sunburst-orange veggie emulsions) getting this much haute cuisine this cheap is rare anywhere.
The Refectory's bistro menu changes weekly and (unless it's crowded) is served only on the patio and in the lounge from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. (Friday and Saturday from 5 to 6 p.m., with reservations). So if you're seated at the right place at the right time, but find yourself staring expressly at entrees stubbornly hovering near the $30 level, be sure to politely request the little bistro menu.
On that slim document, you'll probably eyeball two choices each of appetizers, mains and desserts. This means it's especially great for people like me who don't mind sharing plates (thereby increasing the grazing index to six different dishes).
Wax beans can be bland, but if cooked correctly, can be fun to eat if only for seasonally fresh and textural reasons. Well, the Refectory's refreshing and even biggish yellow wax bean salad achieved a pleasing al-dente state and more. The pale yellow tubes were enlivened by salty clumps of feta, tiny (skillfully made) fruity jewels of tomato concasse, and a bright shallot vinaigrette.
A served-perfectly-warm zucchini quiche hit even higher appetizer notes than the bean salad, only at the opposite end of the food spectrum. It was more about creamy and comforting (if equally summery). A lovely, flaky crust supported a thick custardy wedge with hints of nutmeg punctuated by slices of various squashes. It came dynamically plated with seasonal splashes of roasted tomato coulis and drips of intense basil oil.
That night, there was also a special first course - a delicious fish terrine I couldn't resist ordering (but at a hefty $12 supplement). Delicate, moist and rich, its salmon-led flavors came into focus via a little ruffle of bitter microgreens, a ring of concentrated chive oil and a pool of mild red pepper coulis.
The roasted pork loin entree was surprisingly large - especially at this price point. Fanned out above a tan, silky, buttery pan sauce (without the menu-mentioned horseradish) were lots of beautifully tender slices of rosy meat simply but perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper.
The crowded, almost autumnal-minded plate also held flawlessly cooked vegetable accents like duxelle-stuffed baby squash, wilted spinach, roasted redskin potatoes and beet slices.
Duxelles (tiny, oniony, herby chopped mushrooms) and baby squash resurfaced with the barramundi dinner. It might be nit-picking to suggest the skin on that fish could have been a bit crisper, because overall it was an excellent dish. The expertly seared filet was fleshed out with buttered pasta; popping bright, blistered, orange-colored cherry tomatoes and a lush sauce shaded with basil and tightened with what tasted like white wine.
The strawberry, chocolate and chantilly croissant was the one minor disappointment that night. While I loved the thick chantilly (i.e. sweet, vanilla-ed and whipped) cream, the croissant was a little hard and thus hard to eat.
A better dessert was the molten brownie-like warm chocolate bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. It came with a caramel drizzle, pristine raspberries and (naturally) a creme anglaise.
Gazing at the serious silverware and stained glass beneath the dining room's fantastically rustic wooden beamwork and enjoying the formal service in there no doubt added to my excellent experience. But that terrific dinner would've been mighty impressive eaten on the patio, in the dark bar or, frankly, even squatting in the rainy parking lot.